This third victory was the toughest and tensest of the weekend, though. The Indians fell behind 2-0 after one inning before catching up and taking a lead with manufactured runs in three turns at the bat. The Bulldogs responded to the challenge with a decisive three-run burst in the bottom of the fifth that proved sufficient for Sunday success.
And, for a sweep that satisfied Coach Ron Polk. "That is a nice ball club, very competitive," he said. "They were 7-2 coming in and beat Ole Miss and Kentucky. They gave us a tussel here today and we had to pitch well and make some plays and get some timely hitting to win the ball game."
Four MSU moundsmen were needed to finally fight off the Indians. Righthander John Lalor put in his scheduled stint of six innings and got his second winning decision in as many starts. But it wasn't smooth sailing with six hits and three runs, all earned, charged to the account. Lalor did strike out four of the seven fanned ASU batters.
It required timely relief help from a trio of arms to secure Lalor's win. Freshman Aaron Weatherford took care of 1.1 innings with a run on four hits, before Justin Pigott got State out of a eighth-inning threat with two quick outs. Closer Brett Cleveland was brought in to throw the ninth inning and he did it quickly with a pair of strikeouts and a fly ball to earn his first save of the early season.
Nathan Gates (0-1) took the decision for Arkansas State. He lasted an admirable seven innings, taking ten base hits (eight singles) and giving up five runs, four earned, with four strikeouts and a walk.
The Bulldogs didn't take long to attack Gates, either, notching a pair of runs in the first frame. With one out catcher Ed Easley reached on a grounder to deep shortstop, and shortstop Thomas Berkery followed with a clean single to rightfield. First baseman Jones drove in the first Bulldog RBI as he chipped the pitch just far enough behind third base that angled away from the charging leftfielder. The blooper became a double and Easley scored with ease while Berkery got to third base. Centerfielder Joseph Hunter lined the ball to his ASU counterpart which brought in Berkery for a 2-0 lead.
Gates settled down, though, and got through three more innings without harm. Meanwhile the Indian offense perked up as Josh yanked the ball down the third-base line for a leadoff double, and a grounder to the right side moved him along to third base. That mattered because Yates might not otherwise have scored on a sharp single to leftfield by Michael Williams.
Lalor retired the third-inning side, but in his fourth allowed a leadoff single to Brett Kinning. Kevin Kull followed with a double into the rightfield corner that tied the score. Lalor was able to strand the go-ahead runner with consecutive fly balls and a called strikeout, but in the fifth with two out and a runner at second substitute Josh Allison put his team up 3-2 on a single to leftfield.
That was still the count in the bottom of the sixth when Berkery began a rally by outrunning his roller to the left side for a leadoff single. Jones made it two on and no outs by dropping a base hit in front of the centerfielder, and with two down rightfielder Andy Rice came through with a single too tall for the ASU shortstop. That would have meant one runner scoring, but the Indian leftfielder let the ball go on through and Jones followed Berkery home. Rice got all the way to third and scored as third baseman Michael Rutledge punched a single the other way into rightfield for a double and 5-3 Bulldog lead.
"We got a great clutch hit by Andy, and Rutledge got a key two-strike hit," Polk said.
Lalor finished his stint on a double-play, with Weatherford opening the seventh. He had some fast trouble as a one-out double and ensuing single had the tying runners in scoring positions. Todd Boucher plated the lead man with a fly ball to centerfield, halving State's margin while the Bulldog bullpen quickly filled up. Boucher stole second on the righthanded pitcher, before Weatherford ended this threat with a swinging strikeout of Allison.
An inning later it was trouble again with a leadoff single by Kinning that leftfielder Butts let get through for an extra base. Shortstop Berkery erased this runner as he snared a one-hop grounder from Kevin Kull and threw to third for a tag. Still Kull was able to get in scoring position with a steal of second, and Yates singled into leftfield for runners on corners.
State went to the bullpen for lefty Justin Pigott to face lefthanded hitter Elliot Jacobs. ASU pulled their own move by pinch-hitting a righty, Guy Brown. But the Indians ruined their own plans as pinch-runner Jeremy Lyons, on first, missed a sign and tried to steal second. State's all-veteran infield played it perfectly as Pigott threw behind, Jones relayed to Berkery at second, and the shortstop came home to nail Kull a long step short of the dish.
Pigott then produced a routine fly-ball to center to end the eighth, and Cleveland came in to retire the ninth-inning side and seal the sweep. The 2-3-4 batters in State's lineup each produced two base hits, and while both teams tallied ten base hits the Bulldogs did just a little bit more with theirs and kept the Indians from exploiting their own chances. "We had to make a couple of good plays," Polk noted, adding that with the wind blowing out the first time in two weekends he was surprised nobody hit anything over a fence.
State hit .309 for the weekend, compared to .267 for Arkansas State, and the Bulldog staff posted a combined 3.00 ERA with 22 strikeouts against seven walks. By contrast the Indians issued 16 walks and only fanned 13 Dogs. And MSU put their athleticism to good use on the basepaths, stealing eight times in 10 attempts.
Polk said he would have liked to use a few more relief pitchers in weekend-two, such as long-men Mitch Moreland and Mike Valentine. Both will likely see stints this mid-week as State plays home weekday games for the first time. Righthander Jon Crosby is booked to start Tuesday against Lousiana Tech, and righthander Matt Lea to open against Louisiana Monroe on Wednesday. Both games start at 4:00.
"Now that we play five games a week everybody is going to get an opportunity to pitch," Polk said. "We've got 12 pitchers, maybe even 13 if Andy Wilson comes back, and it's the type of staff that I think we're going to need them all."
He also expects to make use of all three Dogs who have seen duty as designated hitters so far. Polk has mixed and matched with righthanders Joseph McCaskill and Matt Richardson, and lefty Brian LaNinfa, and while none have put up big numbers the coach isn't concerned. "I don't go by stats right now, our DH is probably not leading the league in average right now, but as long as they put the ball in play good things are going to happen."